Bringing Hollywood to the South Bay
An acting veteran opens his own studio in Manhattan Beach.
As an 18-year-old stepping off the plane at LAX, Billy Gallo had one place in mind: Universal Studios.
Fresh from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Gallo, now 48, wanted to make it in Hollywood.
“I came out here with $200 and never looked back,” he said recently at his new acting studio in Manhattan Beach, the Manhattan Actor Studio.
The name “Universal” was stuck in his mind from when he scored a chance role as an 11-year-old extra in the 1978 drama Nunzio by the film studio. So when he grabbed a taxi at the airport, that was where he directed the driver.
As they pulled up outside the gates in Studio City, however, he realized that he hadn’t thought his plan all the way through.
Having noticed the Universal Motel down the street, Gallo directed his driver there instead.
The key from his room now hangs framed on the wall of the Manhattan Actor Studio, which he opened in November.
After a 30-year career that included roles as a cop in Crash and Julia Roberts’s pimp in Pretty Woman, Gallo decided to open the studio to help aspiring South Bay actors find their way to Hollywood.
“The goal is to create a safe environment for actors in Manhattan Beach,” he said. “I wish that when I was a young kid, I had somebody like me. There are a lot of places that teach acting, but not the business, how to book a job. What I’ve learned over the past 30 years—it’s about creating that for other artists.”
He offers private coaching on both the art and business of acting, as well as a weekly group workshop. Equipped with an editing suite and voice over booth, the studio also serves as his production studio. He’s currently acting in and producing a full-length film, Classified.
“I want to bring Hollywood to the South Bay,” he said.
Bit by the bug
Gallo said he got “bit by the acting bug” when he was 11. On his way home from the park one day, he saw movie cameras on his Brooklyn block. He asked a woman, who turned out to be Morgana King, the actress who played Marlon Brando’s wife in The Godfather, how he could get involved. When she told him he needed a resume, he ran home and scribbled down some accomplishments and stuck a Polaroid on a piece of paper. He ran back and presented his resume. The director offered him a role, but his mother was reluctant — until the director explained that he would be paid.
Once on set, he was mistaken for another young actor whom he resembled.
“Everybody thought I was him,” he said. “They gave me the star treatment the first day on the set. They had a chair for me, craft services, asked me if there was anything they could get me, put powder on my nose.”
The film was Nunzio.
A year later, another movie was filmed on his block: Saturday Night Fever. When he saw a group of girls going crazy over John Travolta, he knew he wanted to be an actor.
He set his sights on Broadway. He convinced a friend who was taking classes at the revered institution run by Lee Strasberg in Manhattan, the Actors Studio, to take him along. The studio let him take classes in return for doing chores.
“At 16, I did whatever I could do to be around theater,” he said. He was cast in his first play at the Actors Studio.
But he soon realized that there was no money to be made in the theater. He turned his gaze to Hollywood.
While at the Universal Motel, Gallo was figuring out his next move.
“The money started running out real fast,” he said. He got a list of agents and “started knocking on doors.” He found one, Bob Yanez, who agreed to take him on, and got him an audition for the role of a street kid named Billy on the television show The Fall Guy.
At the audition, he wore his diamond pinkie ring with his name. When his turn came, he addressed his lines to the casting director. At one point, he grabbed her by the collar. When he was done, she told him that she had two things to say.
“One: Never touch a casting director,” she said. “And two, you got the part. But I have to give the other actors the courtesy of letting them audition, so don’t say anything.”
Gallo walked out the room and into the waiting area, where he addressed the other actors.
“I got the part,” he told them. “You can all go home.”
Gallo credits his success to knowing his strengths and sticking to them.
“In my early career, I played every bad guy you can play,” he said. “I was the guy with the leather jacket. My being from Brooklyn is unique. I knew it was my star quality.”
He made the leather jacket work for him when he auditioned for the role of Francis “Booch” Lottabucci on the television show Boys Will Be Boys, which also featured a young Matthew Perry. The creators liked him so much that they rewrote the role for him, which was supposed to be a surfer guy from Venice Beach, Gallo said. Photos from the show with a young Gallo wearing a sleeveless vest, biceps bulging, hang on one of the walls of the studio, next to an issue of Teen Beat featuring Gallo as “Hunk of the Month.”
Along the walls are other mementos from Gallo’s career and life. A giant photo of New York City at night covers the wall facing the studio’s entrance. Gallo’s home town is a recurring theme throughout the space. An image of the New York skyline decorates one of the windows outside.
“That’s why it’s the Manhattan Actor Studio,” said Gallo.
He points out that his business cards, stacked in neat pile on his desk, have the Brooklyn Bridge on one side.
“That was the dream,” he said. “I always wanted to get to Manhattan, to get over the bridge, as a child, to start acting.”
So far, Gallo said he has been impressed with the quality of actors showing up at his studio. He enjoys seeing the effect his coaching can have, like on a young man whose father asked Gallo to mentor. He described his work with the boy as if he were a sculptor.
“He had the talent, and I just started chipping away,” said Gallo. “It was amazing to see the transformation.”
Gallo wants to cater both to those hoping to make acting a career and those who are returning to it after a break, maybe more for their own fulfillment rather than employment.
“Even a dad or mom can come here and feel like they’re acting again,” he said.
The Monday after New Year’s, a half dozen actors gathered in his studio off Sepulveda Boulevard for his weekly “workout.” The sound of cars whizzing by could be heard as they sat in rows of plush red theater seats. Lights shone down on the small black stage in front of the audience.
The actors took turns performing monologues and scenes. After each performance, Gallo offered suggestions or asked questions such as, “Do you have someone in mind who you are speaking to?” The students then performed their pieces several more times, with Gallo giving comments in between.
Afterwards, Gallo asked one of the actors to retrieve one of his favorite books, a book of acting exercises for kids, and to pick an exercise. The actor chose one that involved three actors: One who would pretend to be an alien who spoke a made-up language, one to translate, and a third to play a television news reporter.
The purpose of the exercise, Gallo said, was to allow the actors to let go of their words and focus instead on the meaning and physicality of what they were trying to communicate. He said that actors sometimes get stuck in repetitive ruts when working on a role, and this kind of exercise could help free them from that. Once everybody had a turn, Gallo called it a night. The actors said goodbye to one another and left.
When asked if the Manhattan Actor Studio also represents Manhattan Beach, Gallo doesn’t hesitate.
“Of course,” he said. “It represents both Manhattans.”
Gallo and his wife, who both surfed, moved to the city five years ago to be closer to the ocean.
“We thought, why are we driving an hour and a half to get to the beach?” he said.
An injury to his rotator cuff has stopped Gallo from surfing. But he coaches his seven-year-old son’s soccer team, serves as a Neighborhood Watch block captain in his North Manhattan Beach neighborhood and is on the city’s Community Emergency Response Team.
So far, he’s used his training twice: Once when his son was choking on a piece of steak at a fair at American Martyrs Church, and another time when a woman crashed her bike in front of his house.
“She looked surprised, like, ‘Who are you?’” he recalled with a laugh.
Although Gallo spent the majority of his life in Hollywood, he said he’s far more involved with his new community.
“I lived in Hollywood for 25 years,” he said. “I would have never done this. It’s such an amazing community, you want to be involved. ER